A Georgia sheriff's office is reopening an investigation into the 2013 death of Kendrick Johnson, a Black teenager whose body was found inside a rolled-up gym mat in his high school gymnasium.
Lowndes County Sheriff Ashley Paulk, who was retired at the time of Johnson's death, confirmed to NPR that his office officially reopened the investigation on Friday. It did so after receiving documents it had long requested from a Justice Department investigation that closed in 2016.
"I'm not accusing anybody of anything, but I want to start fresh with it and look at it all the way through," Paulk told Atlanta NBC affiliate WXIA on Monday. " I think the community deserves it."
Questions, investigations and lawsuits have abounded in the years since Johnson's body was discovered at Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Ga., in January 2013. The 17-year-old disappeared one afternoon and was found the next morning with his head facing down inside an upright rolled-up gym mat and his feet sticking out of the top.
State authorities ruled his death an accident in 2013, suggesting he dove into the mat to retrieve a shoe and got trapped inside, after an autopsy found that he died of "positional asphyxia." The Lowndes County Sheriff's Office closed the case, but Johnson's family still suspected foul play.
A second autopsy, done at the family's request, determined the cause of death was blunt force trauma to the right side of Johnson's neck and the "manner of death was not an accident," according to federal investigators.
In October 2013, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Georgia announced a federal criminal civil rights investigation into Johnson's death. Officials interviewed nearly 100 people, scoured tens of thousands of emails and texts, reviewed surveillance videos from the high school and consulted with independent medical examiners.
The Justice Department closed the case in June 2016, saying it could not meet the high legal threshold needed to file federal criminal charges — it would have needed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that someone had killed Johnson, and was motivated by racial animus to do so.
"We regret that we were unable to provide [Johnson's family and friends] with more definitive answers about Kendrick's tragic death," Acting United States Attorney Carole Rendon said at the time.
Assembling the case records for a new investigation
Paulk, who served as sheriff for 16 years before retiring in 2012 and returning to win reelection in 2016, told NPR the Johnson case has been "very divisive for a long time," with questions still swirling in the community.
Upon returning to office, he said, he had pledged that if he could get all the files from state and federal agencies, he would go through them and look for discrepancies.
Paulk had been trying to obtain those federal investigation documents since April 2019. His initial request was denied, but the Johnson family continued their pursuit.
They did so through Marcus Coleman, a community activist who has served as their family spokesperson for the last eight years. In a phone interview with NPR, Coleman said his renewed push to gain justice for Johnson started in October, on the heels of the country's reckoning over racial injustice and police brutality following the high-profile killings of Black people including George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
"As I engaged in community activities myself here and across the country, it just never sat well with me the way that Kendrick Johnson's case was closed," Coleman said. "And the uprising — as I like to call it — this summer just gave me the energy to pursue reopening this case."
Coleman said he initially sought the release of 2015 grand jury proceedings, after Kentucky's attorney general did so in Breonna Taylor's case. That journey took him first to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Georgia, which he learned had recused itself from the case, then to that of the Northern District of Ohio, where it had been transferred.
Coleman said he and Johnson's parents eventually met with the then-U.S. attorney in Cleveland in November, and asked to have the case reopened. He said the process appeared to be underway, albeit slowed by the holiday season and the pandemic.
Last month the sheriff's office received what Paulk described as 17 "filing cabinet boxes" of evidence including documents and hard drives. Coleman said he and Johnson's family felt the number of boxes was symbolic, as it matches the years of Johnson's short life.
Paulk met with the family on March 5 to tell them he had formally reopened the investigation.
"When the news came down, I can say that, in one breath, they're grateful, they're thankful for the reopening," Coleman said. "But in that same breath, 'cautiously optimistic' probably would be the most accurate label. And I mean it's just rightfully so considering all of the letdowns that they've had over the years."
"This is a case we have to look at."
Coleman said the Johnsons believe their son was struck with an object "which was ultimately the start of his demise," and want his death certificate listed as blunt force trauma rather than asphyxiation. He said they believe many of the answers to their questions — such as about the state of his body when it was discovered — are contained in those 17 boxes.
Paulk said he will personally lead the reopened investigation, which will include some officials who worked on it the first time as well as some new to it. He plans to re-interview some individuals and talk to new people, and has already conducted one interview this week, Paulk told WXIA.
He clarified that the 17 boxes contain evidence pertaining to the federal investigation, and that his office already had access to the materials from the state's earlier investigation.
Paulk noted that he was born and raised in Valdosta, and has known the Johnson family for decades, but emphasized that his office is "not starting out with it's a murder it's an accident. We're starting out with this is a case we have to look at."
Paulk said the process will take at least six months, as there is a lot of material to parse. He reiterated he is not accusing anyone of wrongdoing, but wants to examine all the evidence together to make sure nothing was missed.
"This will be the first time anybody's had everybody's evidence in one place, so I'm planning to go through every bit of it," Paulk said. "If we find a contradiction we're going to resolve any contradiction, or try to."